You may wonder if you will ever change the world, but if you’re involved in a Christian group on campus, you have more influence that you think.
What can I do about HIV/AIDS in Africa?
We’ve all read the appalling statistics. We’ve all seen the photos of emaciated people and orphaned, starving children. And we would all agree that the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the continent of Africa is a terrible thing. But really caring about something, or someone, is more than just recognizing that a situation is bad. You have to understand it fully, connect personally, and get involved.
Before I traveled to Jos, Nigeria, last fall to volunteer at a free health clinic, I hadn’t taken my concern about the African HIV epidemic to that level. I have to admit, I was skeptical that it would be possible to make any kind of real difference. How could I connect personally with people from another culture? What could I do to help? How could I understand HIV/AIDS, a disease wrapped up in social and cultural taboos? After eight weeks of working with HIV positive Nigerians, I don’t have all the answers, but I can offer some of the insights I gained.
The most important thing I learned was that despite geographic distance, language barriers, and cultural differences, we are all members of one body. The church in Africa has a critical part to play in dealing with the HIV/AIDS crisis, and we are all extended members of that church. I was amazed at how, through faith, I was able to relate with people I had virtually nothing else in common with. We could pray together, worship together and serve together naturally. I’m not saying that I felt a spiritual connection with every person I met, or that we didn’t have misunderstandings and plenty of awkward moments. But we had a basis for our relationship that went deeper than those things. I was able to discover so much more about the issues they faced, and how I could help, than I ever could have without our shared faith and values.
Through my relationships with the clinic staff, I was able to find ways to offer useful help. Often, westerners see a problem, decide how they would fix it and then subcontract it to local people. That’s not a great model. Local people understand the culture, the need and the appropriate response better than we ever could. What they do need is help in providing that response. This is where we can be a great asset to our brothers and sisters. We have resources and skills that can be extremely useful to local churches and ministries trying to address their community’s problems.
In my case, my skills as a graphic designer and photographer allowed me to help create fund-raising and educational materials previously unavailable to them. It was great to have the opportunity to use my training to serve our Nigerian hosts — I didn’t have to waste my time (and theirs) trying to do something that sounded noble but wasn’t helpful. Through that experience, I now firmly believe that the key to serving well is to find a way to use what you know or do. There is plenty of opportunity to use all sorts of different skills to help the African church deal with HIV, and it isn’t limited to the health professions. You just have to look for the right fit between what you can do and what the local groups need.
When it comes to getting involved, there are many ways to do it. You don’t even have to book a plane ticket — prayer is a great way to help, and the Nigerians I worked with valued it very highly. Giving money or other material support is a wonderful thing. Bringing yourself and your skills to serve is a great experience, both for you and the people you go to help. The important thing is that you actually, authentically care. If you do, you won’t be able to stop yourself from doing some (or all) of these things.
My experience is just one example of how we can help fight HIV/AIDS in Africa. I’m sure there are many more out there. Feel free to offer your experiences or ideas, and please learn more and join the fight!
— Ryan Day